Punta Cana Beyond the Beach

On the eastern end of the Dominican Republic, Punta Cana was established in the early 1970s. Today it’s an alluring retreat with pristine stretches of sand away from the bustle of the island’s more heavily touristed locales. Spend a day on the white sands of Playa Juanillo, where kite surfers traverse the aqua waters. Or venture north to the gold sands of Macao Beach, popular among locals and surfers. This corner of the Caribbean is a happy find for those looking for relaxation. But those who focus only on the beach miss out on the area’s other charms—natural wonders and a rich cultural heritage are never far off.

HITTING THE TRAIL
Among the southeastern Dominican Republic’s most appealing stops is Isla Saona, a small tropical island off the coast that is maintained as a nature preserve. You can book a catamaran day trip to Saona ahead of time using Nexus Tours or Gray Line Tours, or wait until you arrive to check the weather and make arrangements with either provider. While the trip from Punta Cana requires an early wakeup call (resort pickups between 7 and 7:30 a.m. can be arranged), the excursion is well worth it.

After spending the morning in the ecological park, grab lunch at Playa Blanca, a restaurant known for its seafood—the lobster with truffled asparagus is delicious—and bar. Dine under the cool canopy of the main restaurant, or relax on the beach.

Aboard the bus from Punta Cana to the southern coast, your tour guide identifies points of interest as you watch acres of bright sugarcane fields go by, occasionally dotted with the modest and colorful homes of farm workers. At the coast you’ll take a short speedboat ride to your catamaran. Once on board, enjoy complimentary sodas, beer, local rum and even a merengue dance lesson. Before landing at Saona, you may stop at a natural swimming pool and starfish haven. Take a dip in the shallow aqua water and snap a picture with a starfish or two before getting back on a catamaran to the island.

Once on Saona you can go for a swim or take a stroll along the beach while your lunch of salad, pasta and barbecued chicken is prepared. After staying a few hours, you’ll return to the speedboat for the ride back. Lining the coast are lush forests set against the bright blue water.

Back in Punta Cana, grab dinner at one of the restaurants in Puntacana Village. A favorite among residents, El Burrito Restaurant + Taqueria offers Mexican fare, like enchiladas and margaritas, or stop in El Tablao Restaurante for seafood paella with a glass of sangria.

ISLAND HOPPING
The extensive Puntacana Resort & Club, the area’s original resort, serves as a starting point for a little exploration. This 26-square-mile property includes the airport, several hotels and restaurants, 2 golf courses and a shopping district known as the Puntacana Village. It’s also home to the Indigenous Eyes Ecological Park and Reserve, a 1,500-acre nature preserve that offers an opportunity for exploring the rain forests that border Punta Cana’s beaches. (Don’t forget your swimsuit—the park features 12 blue-water lagoons, three of which are open for swimming.) In the crystal-clear waters you may spot fish and turtles. And if you’re taking a dip in Guamá lagoon, you may also happen upon Donald, a friendly duck that regularly greets visitors.

After spending the morning in the ecological park, grab lunch at Playa Blanca, a restaurant known for its seafood—the lobster with truffled asparagus is delicious—and bar. Dine under the cool canopy of the main restaurant, or relax on the beach.

A WORTHWHILE DAY TRIP
Rich in history and culture, the Dominican Republic has far more than a splendid coastline to offer the curious traveler. As the country’s capital, Santo Domingo is only a few hours away from Punta Cana, and a guided sightseeing tour can be a great way to spend a day, learning about the area’s past. The oldest continuously inhabited city founded by Europeans in the Americas, Santo Domingo has a history that offers a lesson on the arrival of the Spanish and their legacy on Hispaniola and throughout Latin America. You can arrange for a Nexus tour from Punta Cana to the capital. Aboard the bus you’ll get an intro lesson from your guide en route to the city.

Your tour begins at the Alcázar de Colón, home of Diego Columbus, son of Christopher. After the palatial home was completed, in 1512, it was where many of the plans for the Spanish conquest of the Americas began. In the preserved rooms within, you’ll find furniture used by the Columbus family.

Beyond the Alcázar de Colón, your tour guide will take you down the Calle de las Damas farther into Santo Domingo’s Colonial Zone, a UNESCO World Heritage site. You’ll walk along a neatly preserved patchwork of streets that still bear the signature of the area’s Spanish and French architecture. On the way, stop at the Pantéon Nacional, or national mausoleum, the final resting place of the country’s heroes.

Near the center of the Colonial Zone, you’ll board a small white train, known as the Chu Chu Colonial and designed to escort guests through the area. Once you’re aboard, it takes you through the narrow streets to show you early churches and the important figures who shaped the city. The train ride ends at the Basilica Cathedral of Santa María la Menor, the oldest cathedral in the Americas. Step inside (shoulders and knees must be covered) to admire the architecture as you wander among the 12 side chapels that surround the nave.

After the basilica you’ll have some free time to wander around the Colonial Zone on your own before departing for a catered lunch. Following the meal, you’ll stop by other major landmarks, including the National Palace, which houses the offices of the Dominican Republic’s president, Danilo Medina, and the Columbus Lighthouse, where the explorer’s remains are interred.

Santo Domingo is not without its own natural wonders. Before heading back to Punta Cana, pause to visit Los Tres Ojos, or the Three Eyes National Park. Here you’ll venture beneath the surface of the city, where three freshwater pools lie in caves below the streets. The pristine water in the cavernous setting makes a striking image—a perfect ending to a day of exploration. Back in Punta Cana, you can return to the sun-soaked beach knowing you’ve made the most of your Dominican Republic experience.

THE DETAILS

Puntacana Resort & Club: 809-959-2222; puntacana.com

Indigenous Eyes Ecological Park and Reserve: 809-959-9221; puntacana.org

Playa Blanca: 809- 959-2714; puntacana.com/restaurants.html

Nexus Tours: nexustours.com

Gray Line Tours: grayline.com

El Burrito Restaurant + Taqueria: Plaza Bolera, Galerías Comerciales, Local 25; 809-959-2015

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